Because we’re planners here at Time magazine, with a month and a half left in 2013, I’m already working on my 10 Best TV series and episode lists. The other day, I was working on narrowing down my shortlist–or rather, my longlist–when I was struck by the number of names I had to sift through. Not the names of TV shows but of TV outlets.
Fifteen years ago, a critic’s year-end list would likely be dominated by shows from the major commercial networks and possibly PBS. A decade ago, it might be those networks plus HBO, Showtime, and the occasional wildcard. In 2013, though, my preliminary list of potential honorees includes not just those networks but FX, AMC, and Comedy Central. IFC, Sundance, and BBC America–oh, I almost forgot ABC Family! Netflix, which is not strictly speaking even a TV network. Next year, it’s very likely I may be considering shows from Amazon–Amazon!–a bookstore turned media outlet where, with Friday’s debut of Alpha House, you can watch original Garry Trudeau political satires and buy LED lightbulbs. By the year 2020, I fully expect the Emmy for Best Drama Series to be awarded to Costco.
Over this same year, there’s been a debate–among the TV critics and obsessives who debate this kind of thing–over whether we’re living in a time of TV plenty or if, as they say in Westeros, Winter Is Coming and our storehouses will soon be eaten bare.
In April, Alan Sepinwall wrote of the embarrassment-of-riches problem of having more good TV to watch than it is physically possible to consume in a week, making triage more essential and ruthless. “I fear that if Buffy were to debut in 2013 with [its] exact first season,” he wrote, “I’d have likely written it off after ‘I Robot, You Jane’ and never come back.” On the other hand, Andy Greenwald recently declared the onset of TVs “Zombie Age,” an era of decline dominated by spinoffs and retreads, in which “ratings-obsessed programmers at even the most respected channels have fallen back into a disheartening pattern of pandering,copying, and outright cannibalism.” (He also called “the end of TV’s Golden Age” in 2012.) Maureen Ryan took a position somewhere between the two, saying that TV was “transition[ing] away from its justly celebrated Golden Age” but celebrating “B-movie TV,” a cohort of lower-budget, often genre-oriented TV shows with fresh ideas but lower profiles than the Big Swinging Dramas of HBO’s past.
So: Golden Age or Fool’s Golden Age? Sitting here and trying to wrestle my year-end lists down to ten (compared with last year, when I had to stretch to get them up to ten), I agree more with Sepinwall. But I think each of them–and several other TV-heads who’ve made similar points lately–are in a way writing about the same phenomenon: we’re getting more and more used to a higher and higher level of TV-making.
The pantheon of the early ’00s era–shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, Deadwood–were great series in themselves. But they also benefitted from comparison: there was not much else on TV that even came close. David Simon was making The Wire; Jerry Bruckheimer was making CSI: Miami. Post-Seinfeld, there were few other comedies near the sophistication of Sex and the City. Lost was a fantastic entertainment, and it towered over a dozen shows that tried and failed to be it.
Whether there are more or fewer “great” shows on TV now–post-Breaking Bad, nearly post-Mad Men–depends mainly on what you mean by “great.” All-time generational classics are by definition rare, and they tend to come when and where you’re not expecting them. (When The Sopranos ended in June 2007, there was a lot of talk that there were no Great Dramas to replace it. Mad Men debuted the next month, on a basic-cable channel for movie reruns.)
But it is true that there are a lot more “good” shows out there: series that might or might not, someday, be eternal classics but are already pretty solid. I’m not talking the “second tier” (or other patronizing term of your choice) of shows like USA’s dramas, unambitious though solidly entertaining, like White Collar. I mean a tier between that and the Ozymandian top tier of Breaking Bad, et al.–the mezzanine, if you will. Shows like, say, The Bridge and The Americans on FX or Orphan Black on BBC America. So if you define “great TV” as “far better than 99% of the competition,” then yes, there’s less great TV–it’s simply harder for shows to attain that dominance now. But that’s hardly a bad thing for a TV fan.
Hell, you could even identify a further layer between the mezzanine and the second tier: surprisingly-pretty-good-considering shows like Bates Motel on A&E or Vikings on History. You could make a whole TV napoleon of layers. Sons of Anarchy, Broadchurch, Downton Abbey, Sleepy Hollow, The Returned, House of Cards, Sherlock–I could derail this whole column getting us in an argument over what should be ranked with what. (That’s what my year-end lists are for!) And I’m mainly keeping it to dramas here just to keep things manageable.
The point is: maybe the best TV today is not as good as the best TV of 2003. Or maybe it seems so because what it’s surrounded by is better, more various, and sometimes just more competent—”second best” shows that would kick the tar out of 2003’s second best. There’s less of an obvious chasm between the great and the awful. There’s more parity–which is not nearly the same thing as more mediocrity. God, just look at any given Sunday night, when–if you have to get up Monday and work at a job that is not TV criticism–you back up your DVR like a suburban SUV to a big-box store and load it up with Homeland, The Good Wife, and Boardwalk Empire to finish over the rest of the week. (It’s true that there are also more forgettable prestige-by-the-numbers dramas now–Low Winter Sun, Ray Donovan, Magic City–but the number of shows worth watching is a more relevant measure than the percentage.)
You can prove anything and nothing with counterfactuals. But if I try to imagine what it would have been like if, say, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black had premiered in the TV landscape of 1999—or Girls, or Louie, or Game of Thrones—rather than in this decade, it would have been staggering. Now? Yeah, that’s nice. Throw it on the pile!
I’m leery of the term “Golden Age,” even though I’ve used it sometimes myself, because, as Todd VanDerWerff wrote recently, it tends to be both too literal and too fuzzy. (TV’s Golden Age is today. Or there were two, today, and in the ’50s. Or there was another one, in the Norman Lear ’70s, or the Must-See-TV ’80s and ’90s…) And it often results in “ages” being compared unfairly. (I can’t tell you how many polemics I’ve seen arguing that the past was better by comparing the current season’s TV to, say, the entire 1950s.)
But it is useful to see TV as falling, like a lot of art forms, into roughly identifiable periods and -isms. And here, again, I think Greenwald’s piece makes a dead-on-correct point: that creative progress in any field does not have to be a straight upward line. As he writes, the creative risk-taking of early ’70s cinema led to the blockbuster commercialism of Star Wars and Jaws. (Not exactly a horrible comedown, but still.) Likewise, artistic success on TV can demand increasingly commercial follow-ups: The Sopranos yields to True Blood, Mad Men to The Walking Dead. Greenwald is exactly right; nothing gold can stay.
What TV has going for it right now, though, is that the industry does not have to change in tandem. And that’s where all those networks and non-networks come in. Say there was an “HBO” era, roughly the run of The Sopranos, after which the network still took artistic risks but needed, say, Game of Thrones to pay for Enlightened. Then there was an “AMC” era of creative masterpieces, after which the network looked for more Walking Deads to pay the bills. And now, maybe, we’re roughly in a “Netflix” era (whose turn to mass entertainment, maybe, we can see already hinted at in Netflix’s signing up several Marvel superhero series last week).
But here’s where TV series today are also like zombies–in a good way. There are always more walkers to take the last walkers’ place. New streaming outlets like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and so on need the creative cachet that comes from trying to make distinctive, ambitious shows. And while Netflix has gotten so much of the attention in 2013, for my money an equally valuable development this year was the emergence of Sundance Channel as an outlet for character-driven, atmospheric dramas–Rectify, Top of the Lake, and French supernatural import The Returned (Les Revenants).
Sundance makes TV for a small audience, which is its own, valuable kind of freedom. Netflix has its trove of microtargeting data, which means–let’s hope–it can make uncompromising, specific shows rather than trying to please everyone. The marquee successes of HBO and Showtime still fund brilliant, not-for-everyone shows like Treme, Enlightened, and Time of Death. (Even if they don’t run forever.) This means more TV, and more kinds of TV: even if TV could still use a greater range of stories, today’s best shows go beyond the Mob, the Law, and the Old West. It also may mean a rise in small-batch TV–cheaper, more intimate, more narrowly targeted–and fewer ambitious epics like The Sopranos.
So are we in a Great TV drought? That’s the kind of judgment better made by history than in the moment. (I remind you again of 2007, when everyone was paying way more attention to John from Cincinnati than Mad Men.) But my copious notes show a hell of a lot of Could Quite Possibly Turn Out Great TV. I’ll take that. To use the terminology of the pantheonic Deadwood, I don’t need my TV to come in one discrete, obvious motherlode of gold. Let a thousand golden nuggets bloom.